Friday, May 17, 2013 / 3:55 PM
After 9 years in St. Louis, John Griffiths (left) is headed west, to Sacramento, leaving behind a rich and varied experience in the local culinary scene. Currently the campus executive chef at Washington University, Griffiths has also worked most notably at Truffles and An American Place. While he loves his job at Wash U and especially the people with whom he works, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to start fresh in California, where he will be the executive chef at The Kitchen, a small, high-end restaurant that offers one $135-tasting menu a night. We met up with Griffiths to learn about his new adventure as he reflected on his time in St. Louis.
The next couple of weeks will prove busy for Griffiths as he wraps up his stint at Wash U during one of the busiest times of the year—commencement. Over the weekend, Griffiths and his team at the university will serve between 16,000 and 18,000 students, parents, faculty, and staff at the numerous receptions following commencement ceremonies. Thousands of tea sandwiches and wraps (like 6000 each), for example, will be consumed by the masses. Although Griffiths was offered the job at The Kitchen in early April after staging there, he negotiated his start to follow Wash U’s busiest season because he didn’t want to leave anyone in the lurch.
While Griffiths spoke of a real fondness for St. Louis, and noted that leaving was a “very tough decision,” he also revealed that his current position wasn’t enough, primarily because he yearned to be back on the line. “I thought I could step out of the kitchen,” he explained, “but I really couldn’t.” After admitting that it’s crazy to want to return to working long nights and weekends again, Griffiths said, “I still feel there is more I can do to push myself personally.”
The Kitchen, nominated last year for the James Beard “outstanding restaurant” award, is a 50-seat establishment owned by The Selland Group, a family that operates 3 other places and hopes to open a modern Italian restaurant with Griffiths’ help. At The Kitchen, Griffiths will be on stage, so to speak, since the majority of the 50 seats is centered around the open kitchen. With only one seating, it’s “like a dinner party,” where all guests will be eating, taking breaks, and finishing at the same time. Such a design allows the chef to interact with the diners, explaining what they’re eating and how the food was prepared, to “convey the value” of the food, Griffiths explained, “feeding both their physical and mental appetites.”
In order to prepare himself for his new role before he moves west, Griffiths is vacationing in Nashville for a couple of nights with friends, including Jeff Stettner, former owner of 33 Wine Shop & Tasting Bar, to eat (that’s what chefs do on their vacations). One of their destinations is The Catbird Seat, a place designed like The Kitchen, where chefs and diners interact throughout the meal. Reservations are hard to come by, so one night at 33, Griffiths, Stettner, and a couple others set up their laptops, ready to log on at midnight to snag the coveted reservation.
Griffiths also recently cooked at 33 Wine Shop’s monthly Dorm Room Dinner, an end of an era not only for him and St. Louis, but also for Stettner, since it was the last dinner held while he was still owner of the bar. Accompanied by several chefs from Wash U, Griffiths cooked 8 courses, including crostini with Salume Beddu’s acorn-fed Mangalitsa salume, buratta, Thai pickled shrimp, charred eggplant raita with Peshawar-style lamb tongue (“people freaked out” over that, in a good way, Griffiths enthused), curried green papaya and potatoes, panna cotta with curried peanuts and rhubarb, and chocolate tarts with rum mascarpone. The Indian influences came courtesy of Sona Kukal, Wash U’s campus curry chef, about whom Griffiths said, “My interaction with her over the last nine months will probably impact my food more than any other nine months I’ve spent with any chef.” In a playful take on presentation, eco-friendly to-go boxes from Wash U were served, covers on, and opened at the tables to emit a waft of cinnamon-cardamom smoke to complement the meal. Molecular gastronomy meets dorm food.
What excites Griffiths the most about moving west? “The opportunity,” he quickly answered. “Being close to all of those ingredients,” he continued. When he staged in early April, asparagus was already available as was Sterling caviar, which is farmed in the area. The Selland family has strong connections with area farmers, so Griffith’s focus on sustainable, local ingredients—evidenced from An American Place to Truffles to Wash U’s dining services—will remain intact. What also excites him professionally is that chefs in that area don’t have to own their own places to be recognized—something he feels is necessary to a certain extent here in St. Louis. As an avid snowboarder and mountain biker, Griffiths’ personal interests will surely be engaged in California.
And what will he miss most about St. Louis? “The people. I met a lot of really great people in this town. The sense of community in the restaurant [world] is really special.” He went on to discuss how great it’s been to watch the accomplishments of other chefs while he was in St. Louis: “It’s been a very busy nine years for food in this town—it’s come a long way, and I’m going to miss the people behind that.”
Of note: Griffiths isn’t selling his house here, at least not yet. And he also suggested that if there were a similar concept in town like The Catbird Seat or The Kitchen, he might not be leaving. Our guess is that once he’s settled out west near San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, it would be hard to lure him back here, but you never know.
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